5 Tips For Dealing With Families When Abuse Is Suspected

Earlier this week I wrote about 5 Things to Consider When Abuse is Suspected. One of those considerations was how we handle the family of a child who we think may be suffering abuse or neglect. These cases are ALWAYS emotional. Our natural instinct is to protect the child and, often, to seek justice for that child. If abuse or neglect are happening, then justice is important. But, how should we, as a church, handle the family? Here are 3 tips for dealing with the family when abuse is suspected.

1.) Remember that things may not be as they appear. Anyone who has ever watched a movie about an abusive husband knows that the marks of abuse are often covered up with lies. You may find yourself wondering just how many times a woman can fall. This can be true in child abuse cases as well. For this reason, we are often suspicious when we see thing that don’t seem right. Maybe it’s a kid that seems to have more broken bones than is “normal”. Maybe it’s a bruise in a strange place. Maybe it’s an injury that  doesn’t seem to add up with the story that the child is telling. All of these can spark suspicions of abuse. However, things may not be as they appear.

Even the strangest thing could actually be completely innocent.

Be careful not to jump straight to calling the police or the abuse hotline. Certainly we should be prepared and willing to do that when it is necessary. But, we need to take a moment to pause. Ask the parents about the injury. I DIDN’T say interrogate the family. I said ASK. “Hey, I noticed little Johnny has this bruise. I just wanted to bring it to your attention and see if you knew where it came from.” Be careful how you ask this. Remember that the goal is truly to find out what happened, not to accuse the parents.

2.) Look for circumstances that you may not be aware of, but could help with. Whether what we are seeing is actually abuse, or not is really not ours to determine. Their are people with specific training and who get paid to determine that. However, there are some things we can do to help the family. Maybe this child needs glasses and the family can’t afford them. Maybe there are some safety issues at the house that the family is not aware of to can’t afford to fix. Maybe the family is facing stressors that are causing a normally loving parent to lash out or neglect their child. If abuse or neglect is suspected the number one priority is the safety of the child. Still, I think there is room for us to look into the situation and see where we might be able to help.

3.) Don’t forget that reconciliation is possible. Each state and county is going to have specific rules for how cases of abuse or neglect are handled. In some cases this may mean that the child is permanently removed from the household. However, that is not always the case. In many cases reconciliation is possible. While our first goal has to always be the safety of the child. I think a close second has to be caring of the family. Remember that we have all sinned. We all required reconciliation with God and we all received it. I know this is hard. Regardless of the circumstance, this family needs to know that Jesus loves and them and so does his church. I can’t imagine the difficulty of visiting a convicted child abuser in prison, but if they are part of your church someone probably needs to.

4.) Remember the family may not be guilty and the child is not the only victim. When abuse is discovered it can be easy to condemn the entire family, at least all the adults. “How could you allow such a thing to happen?” “Aren’t YOU responsible for the safety of your children?” Trust me if you are the parent of a child that is discovered to have suffered abuse at the hand of another loved one or a trusted adult, you are already asking yourself these questions and a million more. This is NOT what they need to receive from their church. Truth is, even if the child is being abuse, the family may not be guilty. Even if a family member is involved, it doesn’t mean that the entire family is. In any case, any family member that was not involved in the abuse, is also a victim of it. They may not be suffering directly from it, but they are now going to have to deal with the guilt and shame that come from such revelations. In any case, these families are going to be in desperate need of LOVE. It seems to me that love was is a pretty big deal in the Bible. In fact Jesus only gave three commandments and they ALL revolved around love. Show the family the Jesus’ church is a place of love.

5.) BE NICE! Above all else, and regardless of the fact of the case, be nice. Sadly, Christians tend to forget that we should be nice to one another. And this is not just for people within the church, but for people outside as well. Be nice. Yes, I’m suggesting that you even be nice to the accused abuser. No, I my heart does not feel as if they “deserve” it. Yes, I know how hard that can be. I also know that we none of us deserved the love of God. None of us deserved the sacrifice that God the Father made in sending Jesus to die for our sins. None of us deserved the sacrifice that Jesus willingly made in giving up his life for our sins. Truth is we are all just as guilty as the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah. Our specific sins may be different, but we are still no less deserving of the punishment that God rained on those cities. Remembering this, be nice when you are dealing with all parties involved with suspected child abuse.

As I said in my post earlier this week on 5 Things to Consider When Abuse is Suspected, this is something we hope we never have to deal with. I sincerely pray that your church never has to deal with it. However, it is an unfortunate reality of our broken world and we need to be prepared for it. I hope this post helps you do that.

Matt Norman

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5 Things To Consider When Abuse is Suspected

This is one of those things that you simply don’t want to think about. In a perfect world every person charged with taken care of children would do a great job. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world. Perhaps the most difficult part is that most instances of child abuse or neglect come from family members. The people who should be the most loving and protecting are actually the most likely to be guilty of abuse or neglect.

We all hope that we never have to do deal with this. As a long time ER nurse and children’s pastor I can tell you that I’ve seen it and it is always difficult. In those moments, when abuse or neglect are suspected, we need to be ready and willing to take action. But, we need to take the correct action. We need to have a plan in place with clear action steps and clear responsibilities for specific people.

Here are 5 things to consider when abuse or neglect is suspected:

1.) Mandatory Reporters? As an ER nurse I was a mandatory reporter. This meant that if I suspected chid abuse or neglect, I was required to report it. Clergy are usually considered mandatory reporters as well. However, is the person volunteering in a local church considered a mandatory reporter? In some cases they may be, but in others they will not be. In the churches I served, the staff/pastors were mandatory reporters, but the volunteers were not. You need to find out what the requirements are where you serve.

So, how can you find this out? One way is to call your local law enforcement office. They will have resources that can help you determine exactly what the requirements are. If not, then call the local office of your states child protection agency. These agencies are called something different in each state, but every state has one. They can certainly tell you who is required to report and who is not.

2.) Handling the Child. When I worked in the ER I, unfortunately, saw a few cases of sexual abuse in children. In these cases a child could only be questioned about the events a certain number of times. This was in an attempt to protect the child from having to mentally relive the event over and over again. This is the law in Florida, but you need to learn what the law is where you serve. This may not apply the same way to other forms of abuse or neglect. Again, you need to see what the law says where you serve.

Frankly, it is not our job to investigate the suspected incident. Our job is to identify it, report it and then support the child. Do what you can to make sure that the child is safe, and that the child knows they are safe. In doing so, don’t put yourself at unnecessary risk. If you suspect abuse, don’t be afraid to call law enforcement and let them help you keep the child safe, and deal with the family if necessary.

Your job is to support and protect the child. Do that and let the professionals do their job.

3.) Handling the family. Child abuse is one of those things that automatically causes an emotional response. From anger to sorrow to fear to compassion to a myriad of other emotions, when we hear stories of a child being mistreated nearly every one of us is moved. Our instincts may lead us to lash out or even to seek justice against the family. Even in this most difficult situation we can not forget GRACE. I know that is easier said than done, but it still needs to be done. Later this week I’ll share a post with more thoughts on how to best handle the family in a situation like this.

4.) Communicating with the church. Communicating such an incident can be an extremely difficult thing to do. What do you say, what do you not say? What CAN you say? If the incident happened at the church, then the church has a right to know something. However, the details that are shared do not have to be very specific. Remember that you have a child and, perhaps even an entire family, to protect. How you chose to handle this can drastically effect the way that this family and any close to them view your church, other churches, and even Jesus Himself. Be careful what you share.

Also remember that the Bible makes it clear that gossip is sin.

Be intentional about what is shared with the church and be diligent to make sure that it is not gossip. It’s probably also a good idea to remind your team that gossip is sin and will not be tolerated.

5.) Training your team. We all hope that such an incident never happens in or around us. However, it is vital that all members of your team know how to deal with an incident like this if it does come up. After you’ve reached out to the agencies I mentioned above, you need to prepare some training for your people so that they know what to do. This could come in just about any form. What matters is that you give them the information they need to know now to respond when this happens.

I truly hope that no one reading this ever has to deal with child abuse or neglect. Still, it is much better to have a plan and never need it them to find yourself staring at child abuse and not being prepared. Consider these 5 things as you put together your plan for handling suspected child abuse or neglect.

Matt Norman

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Matt Norman

Thanks for reading this post. I hope you enjoyed it. To ensure that you never miss a post subscribe using the space on the right side of the screen.